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Alert: Family Farm Pork Producers, Take Action Today

December 16th, 2008

If you are a family farm pork producer, your action is needed before January 2.

The USDA (under the cover of Christmas) is asking pork producers if they want to vote on the pork checkoff. If 15% of producers request it, a vote will be held within one year. You can read more here.

The form producers need to fill out and mail along with a feed bill or other proof of production can be found at the USDA website, or more easily here: http://www.ruralpopulist.org/porkcheckoff.pdf. The proof of production must be from 2007. This is a vote of 2007 hog producers.

Send or deliver your completed form to your county FSA office before Jan 2.

Time is short but the internet is fast. Fill our your form today and send this alert to others.

Since the mandatory checkoff began, hundreds of millions of dollars has been collected by the National Pork Board from producers while the number of independent hog farmers plummeted. The National Pork Producers Council, with close historical and operating ties the National Pork Board, has supported vertical integration and packer ownership of livestock and has blocked legislation that will make markets open and fair for independent family farms. The checkoff has not benefited small family farms.

Pork producers have been through this election once before. They triumphed at the ballot box, and lost amidst political gamesmanship in Washington. A new administration and new leadership at USDA creates hope for a fair handling of the vote this time. All checkoffs should be democratically controlled by producers.

For a history on the battle to end the pork checkoff visit:
Center for Rural Affairs, Corporate Farming Notes
Land Stewardship Project, Pork Checkoff Campaign

If you are not a hog farmer yourself, please send this to farmers you know.

Updated December 16th with additional details regarding the relationship between the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers.

Update 2: Don’t miss the comments on this post, and visit U.S. Food Policy for another post on this topic.

Michael Pollan on Agribusiness Populism

October 25th, 2008

This is a near quote of Michael Pollan on NPR’s Fresh Air this week:

There is a real issue of perception of elitism, and it is one of ironies of our society that junk food being sold by multinational corporations like McDonalds and Kraft appears to be populist, and food grown by struggling, scrupulous farmers is regarded as elitist. And I think there is something wrong with this picture, that those agribusiness companies have seized the populist high ground. When you look at how that supposedly cheap, populist food is produced, it’s dependent on government handouts, it’s dependent on the brutalizing of workers and brutalizing of animals, and it suddenly appears in a very, very different light.

The discussion occurs at about 31:00 minutes into the interview.

Pollan’s comments notwithstanding, it remains the case that much of the sustainable and local food system in the U.S. supports those with solidly middle to upper-class paychecks. This has bothered me for years.

We have seen renewed food systems that we cheer come into existence in recent years, but we too often fail to acknowledge that the growing gap between the rich and the poor is precisely what has made this possible.

Who doesn’t love a Niman Ranch hog farmer? But these farmers that we love to love produce meat for high-end markets on the coasts. Certainly, this is better than producing hogs in confinement for export or growing corn for unmitigated biofuels production. But a local food system that caters to and relies upon a growing wealth disparity leaves too many of the social ills that we set out to address untouched.

That being said, Pollan, as he is apt to do, offers a concise and effective rebuttal to the “local food as elitist” argument. In fact, it is best rebuttal I ever recall having heard.

Depew Family Farm

April 8th, 2008

My little brother sent me the below photo of our family farm this evening. He found it online at an aerial map service.

I remember the aerial photo of my family’s farm that my grandparents used to have hanging on their wall. They paid an aerial photographer for it. Apparently such expensive endeavors are no longer necessary. The photo below is not as high quality as the photo that used to hang on my grandparents wall, but this one was free.

Depew Family Farm near Laurens, Iowa

The pictures is oriented as you would a map. The greenest square in the southwest corner is the yard and house. To the north and west is the machine shed. Directly north of the house is the barn where my grandpa milked cows and where my family has raised sheep, pigs and beef cattle. To the north of that yet is a feed yard and the old silo, unused for decades. To the east of the silo are a couple of open front livestock sheds. North of the silo and those sheds is the grove of trees planted to protect the farmstead from cold north winds.

To the east of the yard and house is the shop and the corn crib that we shelled ear corn out of until I was in high school. The larger white building to the north of the corn crib and to the east of the silo is the insulated winter farrowing building what we bought second hand and moved on site while I was in college.

To the east of the farmstead sits four hoop houses for hogs. We built all four from the ground up with little or no hired labor, completing the first and west-most one in the fall of 1998. I still distinctly remember finishing it on crisp fall days while listening to market reports on the radio as the price of hogs crashed. We poured a shorter concrete slab in the front of that building and used plywood for the walls. Who could justify more expensive concrete and tongue and groove sidewalls with hogs at eight dollars a hundred weight?

I think we took one year off before building the next three hoop houses in three consecutive years. The third and fourth were purchased used. Their previous owner tore them down, opting instead to build more confinement facilities. I remember talking to him as he told me that the hoop house “just didn’t fit with his business model.” I think he had tried to pack hogs into them as dense as he did in his confinement buildings, and was disappointed with the results.

Soon there is a good chance there will be no more hogs in those hoop buildings. That’s a story for another blog post though.

As We Sow

April 6th, 2008

Part 1



Part 2


Part 3

Horribly depressing. Film credit.

Livestock pollution turns off young Iowans

January 13th, 2008

I had the following oped published in today’s Des Moines Register:

Livestock pollution turns off young Iowans

BRIAN DEPEW, SPECIAL TO THE REGISTER

I recently returned from a visit to my family’s farm. While there, I was dismayed to learn that three more livestock confinement buildings are being built within 2 miles. Once complete, there will be 13 industrial livestock buildings within 3 miles of our farm. There is now at least one facility in every direction.

After growing up and attending college in Iowa, I left the state. Around the same time, political leaders in Iowa began to notice young Iowans leaving in droves. They wondered out loud: What can be done to keep our best and our brightest in the state? In 2005, legislators floated a plan to exempt Iowans under 30 from state income taxes. Then last year, the Legislature commissioned “Generation Iowa” to ponder the problem further.

But tax breaks and task forces will not help Iowa overcome the problems it faces. Today’s young adults are moving to places with vibrant natural resources, thriving communities and healthy economies. But for two decades Iowa’s leaders have sat silently while a corporate system of animal agriculture planted itself firmly in the state, undermining these crucial amenities. Our leaders are evading this issue and ignoring the barrier that large confinement operations create to a prosperous future.

Political leaders in Iowa have uncritically embraced the industrialization of animal agriculture and by doing so have contributed to the ongoing decline of family farms and rural communities. Iowa’s leaders took it a step further by ensuring that Iowa citizens have no recourse against the environmental destruction industrial livestock facilities sow upon the state.

I have some advice for the Generation Iowa Commission, due to report to the governor and Legislature on Jan. 15. If Iowa is serious about keeping young people in the state, it should work first to stop, and then reverse, the rise of large confinement operations. By destroying the economic and social fabric of rural Iowa and degrading the environment of the state, confinement facilities make returning to Iowa undesirable.

With palpable air pollution and undeniable water pollution, the environmental strife is easy to see. With fewer family livestock producers, rural communities are left without a vital sector of economic activity. As farm families leave the countryside, rural communities face the challenge of keeping afloat critical social infrastructure such as schools and government services. No young Iowan wants to return to a dying community or a polluted state.

For more than a decade, Iowa Democrats have run on a promise to clean up this mess. After taking charge last year of all three branches of state government for the first time in 40 years, they largely capitulated on this issue. They must do better in 2008.

Iowa cannot afford to lose another generation of young people to the allure of other states, and rural Iowa cannot afford to lose its next generation to the allure of the big city. The state must fiercely protect its resources and amenities from those looking to make a quick buck off the back of the state’s long-term viability.

Like others born and raised in the state, I would like to return one day, but I am loath to the idea of returning to a state overrun by an environmental, economic and socially detrimental livestock industry.

BRIAN DEPEW lives in Lyons, Neb. He grew up in Laurens and was the Green Party candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2002. He works for the Center for Rural Affairs, but these thoughts are his own.

Rural Decline: One School at a Time

January 1st, 2008

I’ve only been through Magnolia, Iowa once or twice, and I don’t know much about the town. Though, what I do know reveals a story all to common in the Midwest and Great Plains. Located in Harrison County in far Western Iowa, the population of the area reached its peak over 100 years ago, a common pattern if not a peak even more distant in the past than nearby regions.

In 1900 there were 25,597 people in the county. By 2000 there were just 15,666, a 40% decline. I turned up some old pictures of the school in Magnolia. Here is the story they tell.

With many more people in both the town and the surrounding countryside, Magnolia was home to a three story brick school by 1916.

Magnolia School in 1916. Photo source.

By 1953 the school had been expanded with an addition that included a large gymnasium. The population of the county was already declining significantly by the middle of the century.

Magnolia School in 1953. Photo source.

I drove through Magnolia, population now less then 200, this last August. As I slowed down on Highway 127, I glanced right and caught just a glimpse of the now abandoned school a block to the North. The top floor has collapsed into the building. The few bricks that remain standing on the top floor frame a window, and highlight the collapse that is occurring on all sides of the building.

Magnolia School in August of 2007. This poor quality photo was taken with a cell phone camera, the only thing I had available.

It is likely fair to conclude that no children will ever again go to school in Magnolia. That’s unfortunate, but we can learn from this stunning rise and decline of a building.

As rural communities struggle to survive amidst a declining rural population, our social infrastructure is the most crucial resource we have. Communities with grocery stores, drug stores and schools will be the ones to survive to host another generation. Once these critical components of a community begin to fade away young adults looking for a place to raise a family skip by in search of one where the school is within walking distance, not a long bus ride away.

We need new policies, ideas, and innovations that keep more rural schools open, and ensure that few schools come to look like the one in Magnolia does today.

Tom Harkin: Strengthening America with Investments in Rural America

September 10th, 2007

Guest Post by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin

In the last few weeks I’ve traveled to over 26 cities and towns all over Iowa to meet face to face with residents and listen to their hopes, their concerns, and their feedback on the 2007 farm bill, which will strengthen investment and economic opportunities for our rural communities and farmers, conserve our environment while decreasing our dependence on foreign sources of oil and improve the quality and safety of our food and nutritional options for our children.

What struck me most during these personal meetings was how our uniquely American entrepreneurial spirit is stronger than ever. I have always believed that one of the cardinal responsibilities of government is to provide the basic infrastructure for Americans with innovative ideas to be able to readily carry them out — and in Washington, Anamosa, Lake City, and other cities and rural communities across Iowa — I was able to witness this entrepreneurial spirit first hand.

In Washington, I met with a local family-owned company called Practical Environmental Solutions that started with a grant they received from the 2002 farm bill that helps to reduce waste by transforming wood into pellets that can burn cleanly in an oven. And in Anamosa and Lake City, I met with farmers who are using innovative conservation practices that not only help protect and improve the environment, but also help strengthen their income from the Conservation Security Program that I created in the 2002 farm bill.

Throughout Iowa, I witnessed the tremendous amount of good that we can accomplish when we pair good government policy with this entrepreneurial spirit and I am hopeful that the 2007 farm bill will continue and expand upon programs such as these to strengthen our farms, our children and our families, our rural communities, and our country.

We can strengthen our farms and secure the future for the next generation of farmers by expanding opportunities by promoting conservation through initiatives like the Conservation Security Program and expanding use of farm-based renewable energy produced throughout Iowa.

We can strengthen our farm payment system so that it can better focus on what it was designed to do – help farmers when their incomes fall and they really need the help. That’s why I support stronger payment limitations and integrity in our farm programs.

We can strengthen our children and our families by expanding the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program so that elementary schoolchildren around the country can have access to healthy and nutritious meals so they can focus in the classroom and their parents no longer have to worry about what their children going to school hungry.

We can strengthen our rural communities by ensuring that they are not left out of the information revolution by increasing broadband access and working to jumpstart a new Rural Collaborative Investment Program to boost rural infrastructure and spur effective economic development strategies.

And we can strengthen our country by increasing funding for innovative programs such as the Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements Program that helps entrepreneurs cover the cost of getting renewable energy facilities off the ground.

The 2007 farm bill is an incredibly important piece of legislation for Iowa and America’s future and I will fight every day to continue to be a voice for sensible policies and values that strengthen all of America.

Editors Note: Leave comments for Senator Harkin in the comment section below or at his own blog.

Beyond Agriculture

September 10th, 2007

In our next post, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin will write about his hopes for the 2007 Farm Bill. A story in yesterday’s Des Moines Register offers some policy-context to parts of his post.

Talk of agriculture often dominates discussions about the farm bill, but yesterday Philip Brasher wrote about another sort of battle brewing in the debate over the 2007 Farm Bill.

Brasher: Harkin prepares push for rural development

A battle could be brewing between the House and Senate on an issue that seldom gets much attention in Congress - rural development.

The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, is preparing a series of rural development proposals, including funding for water and sewer improvements, venture capital and even child-care centers, that would increase federal spending by $2 billion over the next five years.

The farm bill that passed the House this summer had relatively little new money for rural development programs. [Snip…]

A mandatory program must be included in the federal budget each year. Spending for other rural development programs in the House bill would be left to the discretion of congressional appropriations committees.

By contrast, all of the $2 billion in new rural development money that would be in Harkin’s legislation would be designated as mandatory spending, according to his staff, which provided a description of his plans.

“We need to help communities help themselves to create quality jobs and an improved quality of life,” says Harkin, D-Ia.

Harkin’s proposal provides money for rural water and sewer systems which currently face a large funding backlog. It also includes money for constructing and maintaining rural hospitals, assisted-living facilities and child care facilities.

The proposed legislation designates $100 million for microenterprise loan programs for people looking to start a new rural businesses, and $200 million over five years for value-added grants.

These are important programs for rural America, and critical after years of farm consolidation and rural out-migration driven by unlimited farm payments in the Commodity Title of the bill. But the fight won’t be easy.

Republican-led Congresses repeatedly nicked several rural development programs that were authorized in the 2002 farm bill, including the value-added grants and Internet loans. (This is the reason the House Agriculture Committee’s chairman, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., gave for not putting more mandatory spending into rural development this year.)

Harkin has allies in the Bush administration for at least some of his ideas. In threatening to veto the House farm bill, the White House specifically cited the lack of funding for rural hospitals and infrastructure, among other reasons.

I will be watching the debate unfold, and hoping Harkin holds out for a full $2 billion in mandatory rural development spending in the 2007 Farm Bill.

Bush Dog: Earl Pomeroy

September 9th, 2007

The activist-bloggers at openleft.com have launched a campaign targeting Bush Dog Democrats. You can read more here and here and join up here. Part of the campaign seeks to profile each of the identified Bush Dogs. You can find links to profiles of other Bush Dogs here. The following is a profile of Representative Earl Pomeroy.

Earl Pomeroy - North Dakota Representative At Large

Earl Pomeroy (D-NPL) is currently serving his 8th term in congress. Pomeroy was born a North Dakota native in 1952. He holds a BA in political science and a law degree from the University of North Dakota. Today, Pomeroy lives in Mandan, North Dakota.

The District: North Dakota has a single At-Large representative. Bush won the state with 63% of the vote in 2004, and the district has PVI score of 13 (+R) making it the fifth most Republican district of the Bush Dog candidates. At the level of state government, Republicans hold all but one statewide office and a sizable majority at the State House.

Nevertheless Pomeroy won re-election with 65.5% of the vote in 2006. North Dakota also reliably elects two Democratic Nonpartisan League U.S. Senators. This is driven in part by a vein of prairie-populism that has long existed in North Dakota.

The Year was 1992: Earl Pomeroy got his start in North Dakota politics in 1974 working as the driver for Byron Dorgan’s campaign for the U.S. House — the same seat that Pomeroy now holds. Dorgan lost his 1974 bid for congress, but was elected to the U.S. House in 1980.

After finishing law school in 1979, Pomeroy beginning practicing law. He was elected to the North Dakota State House in 1980, and was re-elected two years later. In 1984 Pomeroy ran for North Dakota Insurance Commissioner. He was elected, and re-elected to the post 1988.

In 1992 Pomeroy said he would not run for a third term as North Dakota Insurance Commissioner, and announced plans to become a Peace Corps volunteer in the former Soviet Union. At the time, he said a U.S. House race did not interest him. What followed is almost bizarre.

First-term North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad (D-NPL) was up for reelection in 1992. However, during his first campaign Conrad pledged that he would not run for re-election if the federal budget deficit had not fallen by the end of his term. By 1992 it became obvious that this would not be the case, and although hew likely could have gone back on his promise and still won reelection, Conrad considered his promise binding and did not run. North Dakota Congressman Byron Dorgan (D-NPL) ran for U.S. Senate to replace Senator Conrad.

This left North Dokota’s At-Large U.S. House seat open, and Pomeroy was drawn back into electoral politics. He won the House seat, and has held the position ever since.

Simultaneously, outgoing Senator Kent Conrad got an unusual opportunity to remain in the Senate. When long-serving North Dakota Senator Quentin Burdick (D-NPL) died in September of 1992 a special election was needed to fill the rest of the term. As this was not “running for re-election,” Conrad ran for and won election to the other Senate seat from North Dakota.

In Congress, Pomeroy sits on both the House Agriculture Committee and Ways and Means Committee.

Issues of Interest: Earl Pomeroy voted for the authorizing force in Iraq in 2002. In May of 2007 Pomeroy voted for H.R. 2206, authorizing more money for the Iraq war without putting any timelines or conditions on the Bush administration. Pomeroy also voted for S. 1927, expanding FISA and giving Bush the legal right to wiretap American citizens without a warrant.

In July of 2007 a video of Pomeroy discussing impeachment of Bush with activists on the streets of Washington appeared online.

The video sparked controversy in North Dakota, and Pomeroy subsequently apologized for referring to President Bush as a “clown” during the exchange.

A very rural and largely agricultural state, farm bill politics is of significant importance in North Dakota. From 1995 to 2005 North Dakota received an estimated $7.04 billion in farm subsidy payments. Originally intended to support small and mid-sized family farmers, farm subsidies are now widely credited with driving agriculture consolidation and contributing to rural out-migration. For this reason, farm program payment limits have overwhelming support amongst North Dakotans. Nevertheless, Pomeroy supported the House version of the 2007 Farm Bill that actually completely removes some existing payment limits and increases others limits.

The liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave Pomeroy an 80% liberal voting record and the American Conservative Union gave him a 38% conservative voting record in 2006. Pomeroy’s ProgressivePunch.org scores range from 52-90%.

Initial Impressions: The PVI is stacked against Pomeroy or any other potential candidate. However, the revival of populist-politics across the rural West creates an opportunity for the district. In North Dakota, the long history of the Non-Partisan League gives historical authority to rural populism. Earl Pomeroy knows some of the same rhetoric used by new darlings of the West such as Senator Jon Tester (D-MT). He needs to learn how to use that good-old-populist rhetoric to justify standing up and voting against the Bush Administration on issues such as the war and the invasion of personal liberty though expanded wiretapping authority. His constituents are already sympathetic to a populist argument for doing so.

Rural Bush Dogs: Pomeroy is one of several Bush Dogs from primarily Rural Districts in the Midwest and West. Others include Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD-AL), John Salazar (CO-03), Zack Space (OH-18), Collin Peterson (MN-07), and Tim Walz (MN-01).

Additional Sources: USA Today Article | Wikipedia: Earl Pomeroy | Wikipedia: Kent Conrad | Wikipedia: Byron Dorgan | Congressman Earl Pomeroy | Earl Pomeroy for Congress | Open Congress: Earl Pomeroy | Washington Post: Votes Against Party

Farm Aid: Live from the Big City

September 8th, 2007

Why is Farm Aid in Manhattan this year?

Next Up: Senator Tom Harkin

September 8th, 2007

On Monday Iowa Senator Tom Harkin will write a guest post at Rural Populist outlining his priorities for the 2007 Farm Bill. The House passed their version of the Farm Bill in late July. The Senate is expected to take up their version of the bill sometime this fall.

Senator Harkin is the Chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee as well as the co-chair of the Senate Rural Health Caucus.

The Value of Rural

September 6th, 2007

By Steph Larsen

In a recent post that was crossposted on Gristmill, there were a few comments that reflected a view of rural areas by folks who I can only assume have chosen not to spend much time in the country. They asked questions like:

“What’s so special about rural communities? Why isn’t it better if half these people just moved to the cities?”

I find myself defending rural communities more frequently lately, even though I’ve never been a permanent resident of one (yet). To my city friends, the statement that I’m spending three weeks in Nebraska is almost always met with raised eyebrows and quizzical looks. While they understand the desire to leave the swamp that is our nation’s capital, most of them are coastal people who haven’t given the Midwest more than a cursory glance as they drive by or fly over on their way to somewhere else.

There are a lot of answers to the question “Why care about rural communities?” One might be that with 55 million Americans living in rural areas, it would be undemocratic to categorically ignore their voices. Another would be equality–we routinely spend tax dollars revitalizing run-down parts of cities, and rural communities deserve similar treatment.

Another person commented:

“Explain to me why is it important to keep these small towns alive? Those who have left the small towns are gainfully employed elsewhere. Note that our food production has not fallen off in tangent with the decline of these rural centers. So, this is not leading to starvation. The future may be one of profitable organic farmers in close proximity to major urban centers, if that is what the market creates, and if the government and everyone else would stop trying to prop up a lifestyle that is an echo of our former agrarian economy.”

While it is certainly the case that our food production has not decreased dramatically because of the decline of diversified agriculture, it is also true that agriculture has gotten more consolidated and unsustainable, adopting many practices that are arguably much worse for the environment than ever before. As an advocate for local organic food, I personally make sure that as much of my food as possible comes from local organic sources, but I speculate that every major urban area does not have the space for profitable local organic farmers to feed all the residents in the nearby city, especially with rampant urban sprawl.

In addition, if even a majority of rural residents suddenly moved to the city, there would be a huge strain on infrastructure and resources, not to mention that a flood of labor would likely not do good things for wages and working conditions. In fact, today’s farm policy is partially a legacy of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, whose “Get big or get out,” “Fencerow to fencerow” style led to an influx of rural residents to urban areas that provided cheap labor for urban manufacturing.

There is one argument, however, that I think we can all relate to regardless of our roots. I want you to picture the place you consider home. Perhaps you are in that place now, and can look around, and feel how good it is to be there. Then, imagine what you would feel or do if someone told you that you couldn’t, or shouldn’t, live there anymore. Approximately 20% of Americans live in small towns and rural areas, and many of them are passionate about protecting their homes and communities. It’s unfair for folks to suggest that rural residents leave the places in which they want to live.

Many of us, whether we realize it or not, have rural roots or depend on rural areas. The idea of allowing rural communities to go to waste would have unintended and unforeseen consequences. I admire that our country still allows for equal opportunity to all our residents, and I hope that these opportunities would not be denied due to geography.

As Wal-Mart Stock Rises, Rural America Falls

August 4th, 2007

Before you catch yourself nodding in agreement with that title I have to warn you, Jim Branscome doesn’t agree:

[T]he reality of what really drives the rural American economy is Wal-Mart and the 39 other companies in the Yonder 40.

But perhaps I should back up and explain how we got to this point in the debate before I offer my full rebuttal of Jim’s claim. About a month ago the Daily Yonder asked Jim Branscome to come up with an index of stocks that represent the economic well-being of rural America. In unveiling the resulting Yonder 40, they proclaimed:

Finally, there’s a stock index that tells rural America how it’s doing. This is the Yonder 40, forty companies that reflect the economy of rural America.

It is an interesting idea, but there is a slight problem. It seems that a number of the companies selected for the Yonder 40 are companies whose interests and goals actually stand squarely at odds with the well-being of rural American - be it economic or otherwise. I first expressed this in a comment posted at Daily Yonder:

What does the Yonder 40 tell us?

This is an interesting idea — an economic indicator of the relative health of rural America. But what will we really know when the Yonder 40 soars, and when the Yonder 40 falls? With stocks like Wal-Mart, Tyson, Smithfield, Monsanto, and ConAgra included in the index, the economic health of rural America might in fact be measured as an inverse of the Yonder 40.

When Wal-Mart is doing well, businesses up and down main street in rural communities are being driven out of business. And when Wal-Mart is doing well money is being sucked out of rural communities, destined for the pockets of rich urbanites.

When Smithfield is doing well, farmers aren’t receiving a fair price for their livestock. And when Smithfield is doing well, family livestock producers are being put out of business. And so it goes for a number of the stocks in the Yonder 40.

So, what does the Yonder 40 really tell us?

To the credit of the editors at the Daily Yonder, they picked up on my comment, and repeated the question in a follow-up post about their stock index. They also went back and asked creator of the index, Jim Branscome, to respond to my concern about the reliability of concluding that when Wal-Mart (and other companies in the index) are doing well, rural America is doing well. This drew a response from Jim:

None of us may like it and would love a stock index that reflects the hard work of the small farmer and throws in the sweet smell of alfalfa drying in the windrow, but the reality of what really drives the rural American economy is Wal-Mart and the 39 other companies in the Yonder 40. [snip]

We sorted through about 3000 stocks before we selected the sainted 40. It would have been nice had we come across investable public companies that represent farmer cooperatives, rural electric co-ops, or worker-owned coal mines and sawmills. There ain’t none. No fan of the Daily Yonder may be comfortable with it, but the reality is that Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America as a nation of farmers and toilers in the soil is as dead as our third president. Or at least that’s what you find when you try to construct an index using SEC registered and stock exchange listed companies for rural America.

Had we tried somehow to value the private companies that deal with rural America, impossible as that probably is, we would also have had to list Cargill and Koch Industries and the Chicago Board of Trade as well as the little bitty businesses that dot our small towns.

While briefly lamenting the downfall of the small farmer, the farmer cooperative, and the locally owned sawmill, Jim stands by his original assertions. He further asserts that the stock price of companies like Wal-Mart, Smithfield and Monsanto are a representative corollary to the economic well-being of rural America. I feel the need to further explain my objection.

In outlining my objection, I will stick with Wal-Mart as an example. However, my objection is not about Wal-Mart per se, and the argument can be easily extended to Smithfield, Monsanto, or a number of the other companies that comprise the Yonder 40.

A shuttered building on Main Street in Lyons.

If you walk down Main Street in Lyons, Nebraska (population 960) where I live it doesn’t take long to start to understand the result of the Walmartization of rural America. A solid 50% of the buildings on Main Street are simply closed, boarded up or vacant. With a lack of economic activity on the street, even some remaining businesses are open sporadically at best. A few can still be counted on to be open every day, but of those, one often wonders how they manage to stay open and how many more years they will hang on for.

It hasn’t always been this way. But ever since Wal-Mart began their concerted campaign to infiltrate rural America, and stake their business model on gobbling up an ever-increasing share of rural retail activity, small businesses up and down Main Street in Lyons and small town streets like it across the country, have been shuttering their doors (pdf). Every time one does it means a loss of local jobs and local economic activity. These are losses that often have ripple effects throughout a community. Wal-Mart is most often located in a nearby mid-sized town, and even if one does drive to Wal-Mart to work, the jobs don’t pay what the local jobs did. To add insult to injury, Wal-Mart’s profits are wired to Arkansas at the close of business every day. With them goes the multiplier effect of money spent locally.

In short, this is to say, when Wal-Mart does well rural America does poorly. But let’s look at some numbers too.

From 1990 to 2000 Wal-Mart stock rose from an adjusted daily close of $6.45 per share to $53.31 per share. That is an 8-fold increase. Following the logic of the Yonder 40, this should be an indication of rising prospects for rural American during the same time period. But rural America did not fair quite so well during the 1990s.

Swept Away, a study done by Jon Bailey at the Center for Rural Affairs, reports that while per capita earnings for metropolitan counties in the states studied rose steadily between 1990 and 2000, rural farm and rural non-farm per capita earnings were essentially stagnant in real dollars. At the beginning of the decade, the average person in rural farm counties earned 58 cents for every dollar earned by the average person in a metropolitan county. But by 2000, the average rural farm county resident earned only 48 cents for every dollar earned by a metropolitan county resident. During the same time period, metropolitan counties also saw a job growth rate of 25%. Rural farm counties experienced job growth at a rate just 1/5 of metropolitan counties.

In the 10 year period in question Wal-Mart stock doubled, and then doubled, and then doubled again. However, for every year of that period, rural America slipped further and further behind the earnings and job growth of their fellow metropolitan residents. During this time period rural America also continued to lose population, watch the number of farmers decline, and watch the younger generation depart for the city.

So, there does not in fact seem to be a positive correlation between Wal-Mart’s stock price and the overall economic health of rural America. While I use Wal-Mart as the focus of my rebuttal, I will stand behind my argument in reference to the entire Yonder 40 index.

In his response to me, Jim Branscome also counters my critique by arguing that the companies in the Yonder 40 were used in part because there are a limited number of publicly traded companies to choose from. Home-grown businesses that might actually tell us something about the economic prospects of rural America aren’t traded on the big stock exchanges. However, that is not a reason to argue that the companies that do comprise the Yonder 40 are positively related to the economic fortunes of rural America. If anything it reveals a crack in the methodology behind using a stock index to measure the economic health of rural America. At the end of the day, I would actually argue that this is close to the truth. I doubt there are very many companies that are traded publicly that have a positive correlation with the economic (and social) health of rural communities.

All that being said, I think we should keep the Yonder 40. That might seem like a strange conclusion, but I think it does tell us something.

When Wal-Mart’s stock goes up, another small business that was the life-blood for a rural community somewhere will shutter its doors. When Monsanto’s stock goes up, you can count out another family farmer whose children would enroll in rural school struggling to maintain enrollment. And when Smithfield’s stock goes up, you you can bank on more environmental degradation from large livestock facilities - degradation that has a negative environmental, social and economic impact for rural communities.

That is to say, when the Yonder 40 soars we best expect troubled times ahead for rural America.

Daily Yonder

July 15th, 2007

The Daily Yonder is a new online (blogish-style) newspaper on rural issues. Backed by the Center for Rural Strategies, and actual paid staff, the site is generating original news and commentary on issues of interest to rural communities at pace that makes the site worth checking in on at least a couple of times each week.

You can also drop in on an interesting conversation I started in the comments on one of their regular features. Editor, Bill Bishop, picks up on the comment in a more recent post, and promises to continue to conversation.

I’ve added Daily Yonder to the blogroll on the right.

Whole Foods, Empty Promises

July 14th, 2007

Long time readers know I’m no fan of corporate behemoths, and have no confidence in the idea that what a rural community needs to prosper is another Wal Mart, another large livestock facility, or a corporate dump.

For similar reasons, I don’t put much faith in Whole Foods’ recent promise to do more to support local farmers - an effort that would only slow the trend to corporatize the natural food market, not stop it. This week we got another reason to think Whole Foods will not be inclined to crusade for justice on any front as long as CEO John Mackey is in charge.

By now you’ve probably heard, Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, spent much of the last two years posting anonymous diatribes online in an ongoing effort to paint his chief competitor, Wild Oats, in a negative light. Read the original story at the Wall Street Journal.

I want to draw attention to one of Mackey’s posts in particular - the one in which he talks of his love for Wal Mart, his disdain for labor unions, and his apparent dislike for anyone who might claim to be a victim of sexual or racial discrimination. Mackey writes:

Wal-Mart was just named the most admired company in America (also by Fortune Magazine — that magazine which obviously hates “working people”). I probably admire Wal-Mart more than any other company in the world (except for maybe Whole Foods!). What a great, great company! Wal-Mart has single handedly driven down retail prices across America. They have improved the standard of living for millions and millions of American people. Also Wal-Mart is crushing the parasitical unions across America. I love Wal-Mart! Damn straight that they should be on this list. Sexual discrimination lawsuits? Sexual harrassment lawsuits? Racial discrimination lawsuits? What company doesn’t have those? The Trial Lawyers (the richest professional class in the United States and the largest contributors to the Democratic Party — even bigger than labor unions which are #2) sue Wal-Mart. They sue Whole Foods Market. They sue every business which makes any money. They are probably even a bigger threat to our country than labor unions are (if that is possible?).

For Mackey, an interest in the all-mighty dollar trumps workers rights and pesky discrimination lawsuits. Mackey’s love for Wal Mart, which relies on boatloads of imported merchandise, legions of poverty-stricken workers, and clear anti-competitive practices, leaves one wondering.

Just how serious can Whole Foods possibly be about helping small, local farmers?

Hat tip: Tom Philpott at Gristmill

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